The Beggar and the Professor: A 16th-Century Family Saga 
by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Chicago, 407 pp., £11.95, June 1998, 0 226 47324 4
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This is the story of a goatherd who progressed through destitution and self-education to become the printer of the first edition of Calvin’s greatest work and one of the most respected teachers in Reformation Switzerland. It is also the story of his son, who trained as a doctor, fostered a household of four children, and died leaving 42 musical instruments, a set of skeletons and other bones of creatures from mouse to mammoth (he believed the latter to have belonged to a huge man), a tulip garden, artefacts from across the whole of the newly-discovered globe, stuffed crocodiles and a live elk that doubled as a lawnmower.

The most amazing thing about their story is not the spectacular rise in the family fortunes, nor the transition from the father’s pious Catholic background (what other kind of piety was there in 1499, when he was born?) to their assured place in a Protestant society and culture, but that they told the story at all. Thomas Platter, the father, was persuaded by his son to record his memoirs; Felix, the son, kept a diary in which he recorded not only his achievements but, more important, the minutiae of his life. The result is a picture of unrivalled detail of what it was like to live through a century of unprecedented cultural change. Thomas lived to be 83, having fathered a second family in his seventies; Felix, a child of the first marriage, to a mere 78 – a marked decline from the 126 reputedly clocked up by Thomas’s grandfather. The ages serve as a reminder that life expectancy should not to be measured by averages, but by survival. If you got through birth and infancy and all their hazards, you began to have a reasonable chance of a decent lifespan.

The hazards were daunting, however, and Le Roy Ladurie gives a graphic account of them. Thomas had his first narrow squeak as an infant in the Swiss Valais, when he wandered out from the house of the aunts who were raising him into the snow and almost froze to death; still a small child, he was hauled up from a ledge by a courageous older companion after he had fallen down a rockface while tending goats. He spent his teens wandering Central Europe with a group of other young vagabonds, looking for an education and surviving by stealing geese. Starvation was a constant threat: he was 29 before he could be sure of not going hungry. Plague was a worse killer, and one that often ravaged entire towns. Thomas himself seems to have acquired immunity to it after surviving an attack in early adulthood, but his three daughters and a number of his pupils succumbed in successive visitations. Children who survived the plague faced threats from typhus, collapsing buildings and sweets coloured with lead. Parents themselves could be an active danger: Thomas almost removed one of Felix’s eyes with a mis-aimed blow of the schoolteacher’s switch, and there is mention of another boy who killed himself after a particularly severe beating by his father. Even plays were dangerous: the bolt from Heaven intended to spark the conversion of St Paul set fire to the actor’s trousers; the wicked son of Haman was almost hanged in the course of a performance of the story of Esther. And if you survived one hazard, it would not be long until the next one. A mason employed to dig a well for Thomas in the days of his prosperity was disabled by a stone dropped down into the hole: he embarked on a second career as a mounted courier, but was killed when his horse fell off a mountain pass into the river below.

Drowning, in swimming or boating accidents or in the course of travel, seems to have been a danger second only to the plague. When the railing on the bridge over the Rhine at Basel gave way, several dozen people fell into the water; one small girl who had been sent by her parents to buy mustard was fished out unconscious but alive, still clutching the four sous she had been given for the shopping – ‘obviously a well-trained child’, as Ladurie notes. Nor was death the final hazard. The nastiest deaths, by various gruesome forms of execution, might well be followed by dissection by Felix and his fellow medical students. One midnight grave-robbing expedition was enlivened with a meal of coq au vin prepared by the monk who was helping them. Later, a frequent visitor to the house of the distinguished doctor was a mother coming to pay her respects to the remains of her executed son, now part of his collection of skeletons.

Felix, who learned Latin in his father’s schoolroom and his medicine in Montpellier, where he was sent with accommodation arranged in advance and finance delivered by messenger at almost adequate intervals, acquired his education the easy way. The doctorate that he took at Basel was a flamboyant social occasion: indeed, a series of them, as each stage of the examination (culminating in a five-hour disputation) required a more splendid bout of hospitality for the examiners. The exercise was crowned with a civic procession and dinner for 70. A generation earlier, Thomas had fought for his learning against all the odds. He and his companion beggars had occasionally managed to scrounge a few weeks of schooling here and there as they wandered across Central Europe from Prussia to Bavaria and perhaps as far as Hungary, but it seems he did not learn to read Latin until he was 21.

Once he had started, however, there was no holding him back. Fired by the desire for learning that was sweeping Europe, he set himself to master Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Still regularly hungry, he spent part of the little money that came to him on his mother’s death to buy a Hebrew Bible. He supported himself by teaching during the day what he had learned the night before, and learned enough to teach by chewing raw turnips and even sand to keep himself awake. Moving on to ropemaking as a way of earning a living, he read Homer and Pindar while his master was asleep, then took lodging in a brothel for six weeks’ intensive study of Euripides; returning to ropemaking for a new master, he unstitched a copy of Plautus and hid it among the piles of hemp so that he could study and make ropes at the same time. Over the next few years, he worked as a teacher, then as assistant to a physician, then as a printer, and then again as a teacher, this time running his own school and taking in numerous boarders to increase his income.

It is all too easy, reading histories of the Reformation, to think of it as a concept or an institution: a movement that swept people along rather than one created by thousands of individuals. Le Roy Ladurie introduces us to a few of those thousands – and to a dog, named Poclès, of markedly anti-Papist disposition after a painful confrontation with a sacristan, following an attempt to extract the Eucharist from a ciborium for its lunch. The young Thomas Platter eked out his livelihood and risked his life carrying messages from Zwingli to his supporters outside Zurich. The wars between the religious factions appear here in unfamiliar, incidental scenes: a ceasefire is celebrated by Catholics and Protestants with the sharing of a cauldron of milk soup; citizens sleep with halberds within reach in case their town’s pucelage, virginity, is breached. The extreme of repression is represented by the burning of some young Protestant girls in the Netherlands; traditional piety by the professional palmer Caspar Fry, who made a career of travelling from France to Santiago de Compostela for patrons who paid him to make the pilgrimage on their behalf.

One thing that remains curiously unexplained – because Thomas himself never explains it – is just how he came to be selected to print the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, perhaps the dominant work of the established Reformation. The reasons may lie simply in the close-knit ties of Renaissance intellectual life. Not only Calvin and Zwingli but Erasmus, Vesalius and Montaigne have walk-on parts in the Platter saga, and Paracelsus, Scaliger and Bandello are only just offstage. The 14-year-old Felix found himself delivering a love-note from a student of his father’s to a sublimely naked lady who had probably served as the model for one of Holbein’s Madonnas; he himself, Ladurie notes, had a handsome nose of the Holbein persuasion, the sort that can become ‘the decisive argument’ of the painted face. Nor was it just the learning, the religion and the styles of art that were innovatory. The husband of another of Holbein’s Basel Madonnas died of syphilis, a recent import from the New World.

The saga of the Platters is partly that of a remarkable but exemplary rise from unlettered rural poverty and traditional piety to urban success in a Protestant world of learning. It also offers a geographical overview of France and Switzerland. Felix returned from Montpellier to Basel on the completion of his studies by way of Toulouse, Bordeaux and Paris. His diary provides the names of the inns where he and his companions (Poclès included) stopped for lunch or overnight; notes the disruptions to their journey offered by carnival, plague or accidents; and details, sometimes with more imagination than accuracy, the antiquities and other tourist sights along the way. Ladurie takes the opportunity to supply an extended lesson in the economics, politics and topography of the long succession of towns through which they passed. Roman road patterns prescribe city layouts; different designs of boats pursue various kinds of fishing or trade; varieties of language and of domestic animals change as the travellers cross the landscape; rivalry alternates with accommodation within city administrations and between religious factions; imports from the Americas infiltrate the traditional markets for flour, wine, woad, salt and copper kitchenware. Syphilis advances north from Naples, where it first appeared in 1494, to Bordeaux, where it arrives twenty years later, a year after the first local brandy was manufactured and three years before the first cargo of cod from Newfoundland reached the docks. The sentinels on the mighty ramparts of Sancerre pass the time chucking stones at the rabbits below.

Felix returned home in 1557, to bring to fruition his long-standing betrothal to the shy Madlen Jeckelmann, the daughter of a local apothecary, but the marriage remained barren. His mother, who had been Thomas’s companion since he first began to struggle up the economic ladder and who had run the boarding activities of his school despite suffering chronic health problems, died in February 1572. Within two months of her death, Thomas was married again, to a woman ten years younger than his son, and proceeded to father a second family of six children, the last of them born when he was 81. The arrival of the new family made even more acute Felix and Madlen’s awareness of their own lack of children, and a further incident spurred them to take precipitate action. Two destitute vagrants, a married couple with a small baby, who were trying, unsuccessfully, to escape the typhus ravaging the countryside, took shelter in the sheds of an agricultural property old Thomas owned just outside Basel. The mother died, despite the ministrations of Felix, and the father set off on the road again, carrying the baby in a basket on his back. After a night haunted by dreams full of babies, Felix and Madlen despatched two students of Thomas’s to scour the roads for the pair. Recovered and brought back to Basel, the father was easily persuaded to allow the couple to adopt his daughter. She was called Gredlin. She enjoyed a happy childhood, disturbed only when unkind neighbours told her that she was not the Platters’ natural child. She was not alone in the household for long: Felix also took in his two young stepbrothers and Madlen’s niece after the deaths of their fathers. The elder of the stepbrothers, another Thomas, went on, like Felix, to train as a doctor in Montpellier and to write an account of his travels.

Le Roy Ladurie treats the Platters’ childhood terrors, their struggles for survival and their hopes and grief for their children with all the respect they deserve, and their social ambitions and successes with just enough disrespect for us to stay entirely fond of them. He predicts and directs his readers’ responses: the image of Thomas setting out to cross the mountains leading his wife on a rope like a cow is immediately overridden with the analogy of climbers roped together. Reading a couple of Ladurie sentences can be like opening a succession of recessive windows on the Internet, and finding half a dozen more vistas than you had ever expected. The woman who pulls off Felix’s boots when he arrives in Montpellier is later hanged for murdering her baby; its father, a priest, goes unpunished. The road from Etampes towards Paris runs alongside a river silted up with sand prized for glassmaking and cursed by bargemen, and then past a leper colony ‘which by this time held only a few inmates, most of whom were shamming’.

Le Roy Ladurie uses the lives of the Platters to access the momentous disruptions of the Reformation, the advance of humanist learning, and, equally significant, the gradual impinging of the New World on the Old. The long 16th century, from Thomas’s birth in 1499 to Felix’s death in 1614, marked Europe’s transition from the medieval to the modern. This books shows us what it felt like to live through that transition. The most important things turn out to have nothing to do with the particular century: the births and deaths of children, the struggle for livelihood, the pleasure of bright clothes, the hard choices between prudent avoidance and courageous charity when the plague struck. The one exception is learning. Thomas’s passionate self-education and Felix’s cooler but insistent quest to extend the boundaries of knowledge are indicative of a hunger for the life of the intellect distinctive of Renaissance Europe. In the 1550s, Poitiers boasted three print shops and 23 bookshops to serve a population of two thousand students. The entire administration of the University of Montpellier, by contrast, consisted of a secretary, a porter and a treasurer. The idea of a university city that has one academic administrator for every eight bookshops, and one bookshop for every hundred students, is a reminder of how much has continued to change.

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